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5.1: What is Theory?

  • Page ID
    43601
    • pexels-photo-923681.jpg
    • Contributed by Alison S. Burke, David Carter, Brian Fedorek, Tiffany Morey, Lore Rutz-Burri, & Shanell Sanchez
    • Professors (Criminology and Criminal Justice) at Southern Oregon University
    • Sourced from OpenOregon

    theory is an explanation to make sense of our observations about the world. We test hypotheses and create theories that help us understand and explain the phenomena. According to Paternoster and Bachman (2001), theories should attempt to portray the world accurately and must “fit the facts.”[1] Criminological theories focus on explaining the causes of crime. They explain why some people commit a crime, identify risk factors for committing a crime, and can focus on how and why certain laws are created and enforced. Sutherland (1934) has referred to criminology as the scientific study of breaking the law, making the law, and society’s reaction to those who break the law. [2] Besides making sense of our observations, theories also strive to make predictions. If we understand why crime is happening, we can formulate policies or programs to minimize it.

    The Marshmallow Test). Once we test the relationship between two variables, we also need to make sure another variable is not affecting the results. Spuriousness is when a third variable is causing the other two. We know that ice cream sales and murder rates are positively correlated; when one goes up the other goes up. At first glance, someone may claim that ice cream is causing people to kill. However, what do you think might be a better explanation? Can you think of a third variable that might cause ice cream sales and murder rates to increase?

    It’s “Just” a Theory Exercise


    1. Paternoster, R., & Bachman, R. (Eds.) (2001). Explaining criminals and crime: Essays in contemporary criminological theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    2. Sutherland, E.H. (1934). Principles of criminology (2nd ed.). Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott.